Could’ve Been Worse. You Could’ve Been Lead Singer of The Fall
I took in Control last night, Anton Corbijn's bleak and gorgeously shot biopic of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division who's remembered today either as the Young Werther of Manchester or, as Woody Allen once said of Sylvia … Read More
I took in Control last night, Anton Corbijn's bleak and gorgeously shot biopic of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division who's remembered today either as the Young Werther of Manchester or, as Woody Allen once said of Sylvia Plath, an interesting poet "whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality."
The theatre was refreshingly free of the college girl mentality. Most of the audience were, like me, in their late twenties and thus born sometime around Curtis's suicide; also, sadly, weaned on the post-punk revival of New York, which affords all of the gothic iconography on a trust-fund diet and sans the working-class angst that made the genre what it was. (Pity poor Julian Casablancas warding off his father's fashion models, and then his own.)
With just two studio albums to their credit, one released posthumously, Joy Division's legacy rests almost entirely on the moody gray aura of their stagecraft – complete with zombie-automaton movements by Curtis – and the bass-heavy, metallic instrumentals. If these Lithium bottles could sing…
Of course, you can't become a cult phenomenon if you're a well-adjusted young artist who waters the lawn on Sunday and changes nappies. Control, which is based on widow Deborah Curtis's memoir Touching from a distance, depicts its protagonist as a deeply tormented solipsist who only barely recognized the damage he was causing his family. The film is all about Debbie, really, given how difficult it must have been for her depict an unloving, philandering hubby who cried while having sex and couldn't bear to stay in the same room with his infant daughter. "Everyone hates me, I've made everyone hate me," Curtis tells an oddly magnanimous Tony Wilson, and I confess I found myself sympathizing with everyone just a bit. His heart belonged to another, Annik Honore, the kind of over-mascared Belgian waif Wes Anderson would do something insufferable with, who interviewed him for a fanzine she was writing and asked questions like, "What do you find beautiful?" (It's O.K. I choked on my Junior Mint, too.) Well within the parameters of rock star fame, you might say, but here's how Ian Curtis talked to his wife:
"If you wanted to sleep with other men, I wouldn't mind."
"Ian, when you say a thing like that, it makes me think you don't love me anymore."
"I don't think I do."
Well. Either this is a faithful dramatization of what chatter in the Curtis household was like, or it's the screenwriter's idea of plausible affectlessness at the dawn of the Thatcher era. Whatever the case, it put me in mind of the sillier moments in Mike Nichols's cracked-romance clunker Closer ("Did you swallow his cum?" "Yes." "How did it taste? How did it taste?!" "It tastes like you, but sweeter!"). And as if to capitalize on the mawkishness of that set piece, guess which famous Joy Division track is cued as Debbie walks away?
Thankfully, Control is bleak but not dire due to the humor of the supporting cast, i.e., the rest of the band and especially their manager Rob Gretton, played to scene-stealing perfection by Toby Kebbell. (Where's he been and what's he doing next?) Curtis's noblest gesture, in fact, may have been to play at giddiness on the eve of Joy Division's U.S. tour just for the sake of his mates. In keeping with his true nature, however, what he gave he also took away, since he hanged himself on that same eve. Suicide is not just self-murder, it's also a form of theft from which one is able to escape consequence.
One scanted element of the band's cultural significance was their Nazi iconography. The name Joy Division was taken from the ambiguously fictional term for a group of Jewish sex slaves in World War II concentration camps – as described in the 1965 novel The House of Dolls – and bassist Peter Hook and guitarist Bernard Sumner later admitted that the band was intrigued by fascism. They played up the aesthetic mainly to antagonize critics who were appalled that so many National Front-type skinheads kept turning up for gigs.
One doesn't mean to be a commissar about arthouse filmmaking, but, at the very least, some confrontation with this rancid political element might have helped beat back the Inside-Ian's-Head longueurs. All we get is one infamous riot the night Curtis collapsed with a seizure on stage, which the roughneck audience of course assumed was all part of the act. Instead, it was Michael Winterbottom's hilarious 24 Hour Party People that deftly handled the Fascism Question. Steve Coogan's Tony Wilson has the following exchange with a music journalist:
"How do you respond to charges that Joy Division are a neo-Nazi band?"
"Are you not aware of situationalism? Postmodernism? Haven't you heard of the free play of signs and signifiers?"
This must be why Mancunians – even those who would gladly don Che Guevara tees without a hint of irony or some vapid Derridian justification cooked up – used to call Wilson a fucking cunt. But the So It Goes host had a point. Fascist kitsch, if not actual fascism, in mainstream seventies music predated Joy Division: David Bowie went through his rather unfortunate Nietzsche-quoting, sieg hailing period, and Iggy Pop once dedicated the song "Rich Bitches" to all the "Hebrew women" in the audience.
Still, the dun-colored Hitler Youth uniforms were a new provocation, which is why New Order – founded by the remaining members of Joy Division after Curtis's death – went out of their way to distance themselves from British nationalism. Their explicitly anti-hooligan song "World in Motion" was commissioned by the Football Association in 1990 to champion England for that year's World Cup in Italy. The English club was already being sequestered on Sardinia due to the fear that heavy boozing and drug-use would make them and their fans violent. Italian counter-terrorism forces were enlisted to monitor the players, with the full consent of the Conservative Minister of Sport in London, who was still reeling from the notorious "Heysel disaster" in Brussels, and feared that Brits – not just National Front thugs – were becoming personas non grata on the continent.
Ask Billy Bragg – always more of a Clash man himself – about the perils of mixing pop and politics, but there's no avoiding the issue.